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How hipsters can help us understand mainstream marketing

Categories: Food for thought

Posted on 11-13-13 at 9:26 a.m.

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Two fundamentally opposite tensions tug at the core of human nature: the desire to belong to a group, and the desire to express one’s individuality. Take “hipsters”, the urban style-scourge that perfectly expresses this duality: they adhere to a super cool/secret/exclusive fashion code to express their individuality, while all observing the exact same social codes and amassing the same accessories (from fixed-gear bikes to home brewing to vinyl records to skinny jeans to flannel shirts to ye olde moustache wax). Ah, the paradox: I’m so very, very different… just like all of my friends!


Go further back into the cultish domain and we can see the very same tension in the history of tattooing. Originally, in Polynesian or Japanese tribes, tattoos served as a rite of passage, as marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion. It had a social purpose. Nowadays, in Western society, tattoos are a claim to individuality. In the postmodern world tattoos broadcast “How different and unique am I? Just look at the inscrutable Chinese symbol on my lower back.”


Brands also need to choose: what is my role? Is it to confer social acceptance, or individuality? And there’s a trick: it’s hard to win on both counts the way the hipsters do.


The past decades had been the golden era of Masstige (downward brand extension bringing “prestige” to the masses). Consumers sought social acceptance through “luxury” affordable brands such as Sony or Ralph Lauren. The recipe was simple: you buy the product and you flaunt it. No need for words – the brand itself was evidence of your success. Buy this brand, be culturally superior by aestheticizing and ethicizing the world.


Nowadays, consumers are increasingly developing their own personal narratives. The brand’s role is to retool and help the consumer affirm his Individualism in order to exist more fully. To this effect, we can clearly distinguish three methods that help said consumer affirm and express that precious uniqueness.


Customization: Car manufacturers have just gotten on board this one. You, the consumer, can choose all the options you want, and the brand will build a car to your unique specifications. Or take another perfect example, from a wholly different medium: the Guardian. The influential UK newspaper printed up two different versions of the edition announcing the birth of future King of England, Prince Baby George: one for Monarchists, with Prince George front-and-center; one for Republicans, minus any mention of the child. Talk about customizing reality according to the audience’s beliefs.


Personalization: Tailoring the brand experience to consumer preferences. Look at Amazon, which has made a science of divining your preferences based on an array of information, and adapting to them. But it’s not just New Marketing 101 for the Corporate set. Arcade Fire, Montreal’s globally-hot indie band, used the same premise for the video for We Used To Wait. The song is about nostalgia/love for the teenage years. Type in the postal code for the house you grew up in and Google Street View whisks you to your teenage neighbourhood. It makes the entire immersive experience truly personalized – and moving.


Craftization: Here, the brand invites the consumer to bring his own skills and knowledge into the experience, making it an extension of his self-expression. This one is typically attached to domestic hobbies or – yes – crafts, like cooking, interior design or gardening. Magazine and cookbooks are full of examples of this. And yes, the hipsters are here as well, with their (supposedly) prized small-batch craft beer. None of that Budweiser for Mr. Moustachio.


So, no, Hipsters are not just annoying. They are a genuine cultural example of the tension between the social and the individual in marketing, and the shifts underway as brands retool. But never mind, they’ll say – it’s all too cool for you.